The Best New Artists & Breakthroughs of 2021
Updated December 9, 2021 at 3:18 PM ET
We have many things to be grateful for: vaccines, a steady return to live events and a plethora of great tunes. We've already listed the best albums and songs of the year, so let's talk about the best new artists and breakthroughs of 2021.
On Dec. 9, we had a live conversation on NPR Music's YouTube channel about the artists who shaped the year. NPR Music's Ann Powers, Alt.Latino's Anamaria Sayre, World Cafe's Raina Douris, Radio Milwaukee's Tarik Moody and Pop Culture Happy Hour's Stephen Thompson joined host Lars Gotrich to discuss how these musicians work "across genre, across styles, across borders, transnationally, bilingually," as Powers noted. "It's giving me a good feeling about connections rather than disconnection."
For the purposes of this Listening Party, we decided that a new artist meant that they released an album, demo, mixtape or single in 2021. (If they were previously in a band, but made their solo debut this year, that counts!) For breakthrough artists, the guidelines become somewhat fuzzier. These are musicians who have released albums, toured and found small, but devoted audiences; this year, they broadened their scope either through chart placement, bookings at major festivals or finally got some long overdue critical recognition.
Below you can find our staff picks for the best new artists and breakthroughs of 2021.
Best New Artist: Wet Leg
After going through the pandemic, there were a lot of serious, earnest albums released, which are beautiful and important. But it left me kind of wanting something that was kind of fun and silly and just unrelated to all of that. The first song that Wet Leg released, "Chaise Longue," caught me right away. It's a fine line to walk when you want to be funny and silly in a song without being too silly and they walk it. They're just the coolest. —Raina Douris, World Cafe
Best New Artist: María Becerra
María Becerra is a 21 year old from Argentina. She got her start doing a cappella YouTube covers of Ariana Grande and people like that, so she proved her vocal acumen at an early stage. But then was found by members of the Argentinian trap scene that's on the rise. The really interesting thing about "Acaramelao" is that it actually uses a sample on it from "Yo No Sé Mañana," which is a huge Salsa song. She's really trying to establish herself as more than just a member of this trap scene, but rather immediately inserting herself into this larger Latin music family that pulls from a lot of different global sounds and time periods. —Anamaria Sayre, Alt.Latino
Best New Artist: PinkPantheress
I am a drum and bass kid at the core. I feel like drum and bass hasn't gone away, it's just gone away from the public eye, and PinkPantheress has brought it back in a fun, new way. The art of sampling and the beauty of Black artists contributions to electronic music has been overlooked, and artists like PinkPantheress are bringing back what Black artists have done for electronic music that's been ignored for too long. —Tarik Moody, Radio Milwaukee
Best New Artist: Allison Russell
Outside Child tells Allison Russell's story of growing up Black in Montreal, abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, escape — she actually lived on the streets for a while as a teenager — and then redemption and recovery through going to Vancouver, discovering music, joining a punk band. All the songs take us through that journey, not only through the lyrics, but through the incredibly musical tapestry of the album. You feel the love and community and healing in this album. —Ann Powers
Breakthrough Artist: Arooj Aftab
There's a Venn diagram where Sade intersects with Jeff Buckley, and right in the middle of that Venn diagram is my entire heart. Vulture Prince manages to swim in that space... Arooj Aftab's drawing from all of these different sounds and styles to make this wonderfully transporting record where we could needle drop anywhere on this record and find something beautiful that doesn't sound like anything else. It's rooted in real heartbreak and grief, but at the same time it's so beautiful and heartfelt that you're not just sitting wallowing in that grief, but you're celebrating in it as well. —Stephen Thompson, Pop Culture Happy Hour
Breakthrough Artist: Yasmin Williams
Yasmin Williams treats her guitar like a playground. She taps the wood of the instrument, fingertaps the fret — on other songs, she taps dance shoes, plays the kora or a thumb piano while playing the guitar. In a lot of ways, the joy and possibility she brings to the guitar reminds me more of Eddie Van Halen than any of the other fingerstyle guitarists to whom she's compared. This music goes back to Black blues guitarists; she's reclaiming, but she's also staking her claim at the same time. —Lars Gotrich
Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis co-produced this story with Lars Gotrich.
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